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Posts Tagged ‘Joe Zawinul’

By Joel Francis

Nice weather and conference calls are an anathema to playing records.

Jay-Z – The Black Album (2003) Reading Jay-Z’s book Decoded has me turning back to his old albums for the first time in quite a while. Sean Carter has always been at his best when rhyming about himself, particularly his early exploits as a hustler. Jay’s told it so many times it’s almost as much cliché as legend by this point. The Black Album is loaded with boasting and taunts over some of the best productions of the time. The Neptunes, Rick Rubin, Just Blaze, Timbaland and a young Kanye West all contribute tracks. One of Hova’s best-known rhymes on the album comes from “Moment of Clarity”: “If skills sold, truth be told, I’d probably be lyrically Talib Kweli.” As we saw on 4:44, Jay can’t really do conscious rap without inevitably turning it back on himself. (Remember his lament over not investing in Dumbo real estate in “The Story of O.J.”?) The Black Album is all about Jay-Z all the time, and we are better for it.

Paul McCartney – Press To Play (1986) Somewhere along the way, I got the idea that Press to Play was a solid Paul McCartney album, unfairly overlooked because of its very of-the-moment production. It isn’t. There are some songs I genuinely enjoy here, such as the flamenco guitar-accented “Footprints,” “Press” and “Move Over Busker.” There is a solid EP lurking among these 10 tracks. The problem with the rest is that despite help from 10cc’s Eric Stewart, the songwriting simply isn’t that strong. McCartney was wise to bring in Elvis Costello as a songwriting partner for his next album, Flowers in the Dirt. I didn’t pay much for Press to Play so I don’t feel badly about owning it, but all but the most dedicated McCartney fans can press skip instead.

Sonny Rollins – Next Album (1972) Jazz albums from the 1970s can be a dicey proposition. One never knows how much synthesizer or slap/fretless bass will be involved. Fortunately, Sonny Rollins plays to his strengths on Next Album. For the most part, Rollins plays in an acoustic four-piece setting. Opening number “Playin’ in the Yard” is the only track to feature electric bass and electric piano. It’s also the only time Next Album sounds of the moment, but anyone who enjoyed Joe Zawinul’s tenure with Cannonball Adderly will feel right at home. Later, “The Everywhere Calypso” lives up to its name with a fun Caribbean beat. The absolute high point is a 10-minute version of “Skylark” that closes the album. The band gradually fades away during the performance, leaving Rollins to play unaccompanied for several blissful minutes.

DJ Shadow – Endtroducing (1996) The Bay-area DJ’s first album is the one to which all of his other releases will be compared. None of the songs on this all-instrumental album made the charts, but “Building Steam with a Grain of Salt” has appeared in several commercials. You would probably recognize the haunting piano line if you heard it. The spacey “Midnight in a Perfect World” is another favorite. Clocking in at nearly 10 minutes “Stem/Long Stem/Transmission 2” is the centerpiece of the album. It starts with a harp refrain before building into a hard drum attack (with strings). It eventually settles back down into something almost ambient. If Brian Eno ever tried to create dance music, it might sound a lot like this. Whenever someone says that sampling isn’t music, I hold up Endtroducing as an emphatic counterargument. Then walk away, because arguing about what constitutes music, much like arguing about authenticity or what is or isn’t a sport, is a waste of time. And I’d rather be listening to music than quarreling about it.

Toots and the Maytals – Funky Kingston (1975) Reggae pioneer Toots Hibberts’ first album for Island Records is so strong you might be forgiven for thinking you are listening to a greatest hits album. Many of his biggest – and best – songs are here: “Funky Kingston,” “Time Tough,” “Pressure Drop” (later covered by the Clash, the Specials and Keith Richards) and a delightful cover of John Denver’s “Country Roads” (with West Jamaica standing in for West Virginia). Hibbert’s singing has always been filled with as much soul and gospel as reggae. His joyous vocals go a long way toward making these great songs even more infectious.

Junior Walker and the All Stars – Shotgun (1965) Junior Walker recorded nearly 20 albums for Motown, but this is really the only one you need. From the title song to Holland-Dozier-Holland’s “(I’m a) Roadrunner” to the infectious “Shake and Fingerpop,” Shotgun not only contains Junior Walker’s best-known tunes, but a deep well of great album tracks as well. “Shoot Your Shot” could be “Shotgun”’s cousin, complete with dance steps. “Cleo’s Mood” steps away from the template and sounds like a Leiber-Stoller revival. When you see Shotgun, don’t be afraid to pull the trigger. You know you need this.

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By Joel Francis

Joe Tex – I Gotcha (1972) Like a lot of people, I was introduced to Joe Tex through the Reservoir Dogs soundtrack. Like most of Quentin Tarantino’s musical moments, “I Gotcha” was placed perfectly in the film, when the guys bring the captive cop back to the warehouse. I can’t remember where or when I first encountered “You Said a Bad Word,” but that song captured the same sexual menace, braggadocio and funk as “I Gotcha.” If you liked one, you would surely like the other. Lucky for me, those songs kick off each side of this album. “Give the Baby Anything That Baby Wants” was another single released from this album in the same vein as “I Gotcha” and “Bad Word.” The ballads on here aren’t bad, but when I spin this record I want to strut.

Cannonball Adderly – Mercy, Mercy, Mercy! Live at The Club (1966) If you don’t recognize the name Cannonball Adderly, you may know him as the saxophone player who isn’t John Coltrane on Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. This album is a world away from Davis’ celebrated release, but it is fantastic in its own right. The title song actually crossed over on the pop charts and it’s easy to see why. It kind of rolls in from nowhere before building into a big gospel-fueled chorus. Composer Joe Zawinul takes a solo on the electric piano as the melody percolates until the band churns back into that big chorus. It’s the kind of song that could go on forever. To my ears, it also points the way to the jazz television themes of the 1970s and ‘80s, like Bob James’ “Angela,” used for Taxi and Mike Post’s theme for “Hill Street Blues.” If Zawinul’s name sounds familiar, he played on Davis’ fusion landmarks “In a Silent Way” and “Bitches Brew” before founding Weather Report with Wayne Shorter. Oh, and the rest of this live album is great, too.

Neko Case – The Tigers Have Spoken (2004) Technically this is a live album, but there’s no crowd noise or stage banter (until a hidden track at the end), so you could be forgiven for thinking this is a studio release. Either way, hearing Neko Case perform songs by Buffy Saint Marie and Loretta Lynn is a treat. Gospel music isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when I think of Case, but she and her top-shelf band do right by “This Little Light.” My hometown even gets a nod on “The Train from Kansas City.” All in all, The Tigers Have Spoken isn’t as essential or immediate as the many studio albums containing her original compositions, but it is a great homage to some of the people who inspired her.

Red Kate – Unamerican Activities (2016) Nearly every December for the past several years the RecordBar has hosted a great tribute to the late Clash singer and guitarist Joe Strummer. I always make it a point to attend because it is an opportunity to hear songs by my favorite band performed live. Red Kate were the closing performers in 2018 and blew me away with their intensity. Afterward, I struck up a conversation with lead singer L. Ron Drunkard – shout-out to that amazing stage name – who is exactly who you’d expect him to be: A guy who fell in love with punk music as a kid and has been playing in bands for most of his life while holding down a day job to pay the bills.

The music on Unamerican Activities reflects that proletariat, we’re-all-in-this-together perspective. These songs hit hard and punch back at the ruling class. No one’s working for the clampdown in these quarters.

Roy Orbison – All-Time Greatest Hits (1986) Every music collection needs so Roy Orbison, so this was one of the earliest albums I bought. A closer look reveals this aren’t the original recordings of Orbison’s best-known songs, but remakes done in 1986. The big clues are that the musician credits are the same for all tracks and there aren’t any licensing arrangements for the singles that were initially issued across several labels. The good news is that the producers didn’t try to update the Orbison sound. There are no gated drums or synthesizers and Orbison still hits all the right notes on “Cryin’” so this collection still works for me.

Public Enemy – Fear of a Black Planet (1990) Despite its provocative title, Public Enemy’s third album isn’t as incendiary as the first two. This isn’t to say Chuck D is pulling any punches. “Burned Hollywood Burned” torches the movie industry for black stereotypes and the lack of black actors a generation before #OscarsSoWhite. “Fight the Power” doesn’t attempt to hide its manifesto. Deeper into this dense album “Pollywannacracka” discusses interracial couples (before Jungle Fever, I might add). Flava Flav’s comic relief comes in the form of “911 is a Joke.” Ha ha.

In a way, Black Planet is a distillation of the first two albums in manner more palatable to mainstream tastes. It’s PE’s best-selling album, but also the last album where nothing feels forced and it doesn’t seem like they are trying too hard. Looking at current headlines and the spike in hate crimes since 2017, it seems the concept of a black planet is still a very present fear in society today. Welcome to the terrordome.

John Fogerty – Blue Ridge Rangers (1973) John Fogerty was snake-bitten and gun-shy after the demise of Creedence Clearwater Revival. His label owner swindled him out of songwriting royalties and his brother Tom had sided with the label before bitterly leaving CCR. This is probably why John Fogerty’s name is hard to find anywhere on this debut solo album. The Blue Ridge Rangers are actually Fogerty playing all the instruments. He does a good job sounding like Nashville session players during this romp through a dozen country standards. My favorites are the gospel songs “Working on a Building” and “Somewhere Listening,” each featuring a choir of Fogertys on backing vocals. The performance of Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya” is as close as the album gets to CCR territory.

Willie Nelson – Phases and Stages (1974) Finding someone who doesn’t like Willie Nelson is like encountering someone who hates rainbows, ice cream and puppies. I mean, I guess mathematically that person has to exist, but you never expect (or hope) to encounter him or her. I’ll never forget a former co-worker’s diatribe against Nelson, but I took some satisfaction in knowing the disdain was for political, rather than musical reasons.

Phases and Stages is the album that immediately preceded Nelson’s breakthrough, Red-Headed Stranger and also the second of what would be three consecutive concept albums. I’d say that period represents peak Nelson, but the truth is that Nelson turns out so many albums and so many of them are solid that any valleys are likely to be followed by a couple more peaks. If you love country music, rainbows, ice cream and puppies, you should have this album. If you don’t like any of these, I feel sorry for you.

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